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Mac tip: Master the screenshot utility

The built-in screenshot utility in OS X is a surprisingly powerful tool. As a person who works with design and IT support among many other things, it’s been an indespensable tool throughout the years. In this post I’d like to share some quick tips on how to get the most out of it!

The basics

Before moving on to the advanced stuff, let’s go through the very basics: How to take screenshots.

There’s no ”Print Screen” key on Mac keyboards, which might confuse users transitioning from Windows, but instead you use a combination of the Shift (⇧), Command (⌘) and Control (⌃) keys in conjunction with one of the number keys 3 or 4. These digits might not be as descriptive as ”Print Screen”, but what they lack in expressiveness, they make up for in function.

Here’s a quick cheat list:

Saving screenshots as files

++ 3:  Whole screen
++ 4:  Make a selection

Saving screenshots to the clipboard

+++ 3:  Whole screen
+++ 4:  Make a selection

So many options!

Yes, there are a lot of options and lot of keys to press here, but it’s for the greater good!

Basically there are two types of screenshots: Whole screen and Selection. If you choose to make a selection, a cursor will appear and you will be able to draw out the area you’d like to make a screenshot of. If you change your mind, just press Escape to cancel the operation. Super userful! If you’re an app developer, it might also be good to know that if you press Space before making the selection, you’ll be able to screenshot individual windows!

Furthermore, there are two ways to save screenshots; either they’re saved as files, or they’re copied to the clipboard. The latter might be familiar to Windows users as the classic method was/is to print screen and paste images into Paint.

Saving as a file must be the superior option, no?

Depends on the use case. Sometimes you need to send screenshots as files, and sometimes you’d rather paste screenshots directly into the target applications.

It’s probably enough learning only how to save screenshots as files in most use cases, and even only learning how to screenshot the whole screen, but if your goal is to optimize your daily workflows by removing unnecessary steps, you should learn them all.

Customizing the screenshot utility

One thing I like to do whenever I’m on a new system, is to change the location where screenshots are saved. By default they’re saved to the desktop, but I avoid putting stuff on the desktop. I used to do it, but since I’ve adopted a workflow that is centered around the Downloads dock folder, I rather have all temporary files to be saved to that folder instead.

Changing the screenshot location

To do this, you need to play a little with the Terminal. You find this application in /Applications/Utilities, or just spotlight it. If this is the first time seeing a command line interface to you, please don’t fret. I generally don’t like or advocate using command lines, so I won’t make this into a lesson in how all of this works. Just follow my instructions, and enjoy the outcome!

When you open up the Terminal, you will see a lot of information, and on the last line you should see the name of your computer. You will also see a cursor (a square) where you can type commands.

Now type/copy and paste this, and hit the Enter key:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture location \~/Downloads/

Make sure you copy the whole line. You might need to scroll the text box if the whole line don’t fit.

This command will set the default save location to /Downloads.

To apply the change you just set, you need to enter one last command:

killall SystemUIServer

Looks a bit brutal, but what it does is to restart the system service that controls the screenshot utility.

Now all screenshots should be saved to the Downloads folder!

By the way, if you’d rather like the screenshots saved to the /Pictures folder, use this command instead of the first one:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture location \~/Pictures/

Changing the screenshot file format

Screenshots are by default saved as PNG files, which is great since there will be no loss of details. The only disadvantage is that the file sizes will be larger than if you would have saved them as JPEG files. Personally I will just convert them whenever I need to, and you can do this easily in the Preview app, but if you prefer to always have screenshots saved as JPEG files, for whatever reason, you can use this Terminal command:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture type jpg

And you’re not only restricted to JPG or PNG file formats, you can even set the default format to PDF! Just change the last word to PDF:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture type pdf

Or back to PNG:

defaults write com.apple.screencapture type png

And don’t forget to complete the settings by entering:

killall SystemUIServer

Once again, I don’t find this command very useful to me personally, as PNG is perfect in most cases and I’m comfortable with converting files if needed. I just wanted to throw it out to you, in case you’re feeling adventurous one late evening :)

Bonus: Measure screen dimensions quickly

Before I round this post up, I’d like to share with you an unrelated but smart use of the screenshot utility. This trick is pure gold, especially if you work with web design or development, and often find yourself in need for measuring dimensions of on-screen elements. When the accuracy isn’t a big factor, you can simply bring up the screenshot selection tool to make quick, approximate measurements! You see, the selection cursor shows both the current position and the dimensions of your selection! Press Escape when you’re done to avoid filling up your computer with unnecessary image files.

For 100% accuracy, you can use this little trick in conjunction with the OS X’s built-in zoom feature. Just remember to turn off antialiasing when zooming in, so that you can see the all those raw pixels!

Wrapping it up

That concludes yet another practical, Mac-focused post. I apologize for the lack of screenshots (oh the irony…), and I hope you found it useful anyway! See you next time!

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